Professor Stephanie Griest
A world traveler and published author, English and Comparative Literature Professor Stephanie Griest tells us about her latest book, All the Agents and Saints, and delves into a discussion of her identity. Despite being raised in South Texas, Professor Griest never learned Spanish growing up. She has spent her life trying to understand her bi-cultural identity by exploring the world and writing about it. The following interview delves into these topics and more.
Professor Griest has written three critically-acclaimed books based on her extensive travels and experience as a journalist: Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, Mexican Enough, and All the Agents and Saints. Her first book- Around the Bloc, – took 10 years to write and encompasses her experience living and working in the titled cities. In the cases of Russia and China, Griest took time to learn the local languages, something that she regrettably did not do in preparation for her time in Cuba. ”I did not study Spanish and went to Cuba and realized it was crazy to be in Cuba and not speak Spanish,” she recalls.
Griest went on to dissect the reasons for being a Latina who did not speak Spanish. While learning about the suppression of languages such as Latvian and Lithuanian during the time of the Soviet Union, she became aware of how her mother’s language, Spanish, had been suppressed in South Texas. Just as people were severely punished for speaking languages other than Russian, Latino culture was received unfavorably in Texas when her mother was growing up. “My mother’s generation,” she elaborates, “was really punished for speaking Spanish. Their mouths were washed out with soap; they were smacked on the wrists with rulers for speaking Spanish. A lot of these children were Tejanos whose families had lived in the region for five or six generations. Yet they faced a lot of discrimination for having accents, for only speaking Spanish, or for speaking English that was deemed less than perfect. Ultimately they decided not to pass on the language to their children, which is why an entire generation of southern Tejanos grew up without speaking Spanish, myself included.”
This realization led to her second book, Mexican Enough, in which she describes her experience moving to Mexico at the age of 30 for a year. This dramatic change was spurred by a profound need to come to a deeper connection with her mother’s ancestry, her heritage. She describes this year of her life as immensely powerful. Griest was in Mexico during the year leading up to the infamous War on Drugs was declared by president Felipe Calderon, a heavily politically charged time period for Mexico. It was during this tumultuous year that she came to a realization about her cultural identity. She explains, “I came to a larger realization that I will never be Mexican because what really makes a person a part of an identity is childhood memory and having deeper cultural connections. Though I was raised with a fond appreciation for Mexican culture, it is not wholly my own. What I am is a member of the borderlands. I am a woman who walks between worlds and who inhabits the liminal space between.”
Her new book, All the Agents and Saints, is a continuation of this reflection on identity and specifically borderlands. “It is a reflection on what it means to have an international borderline split your motherland in two,” she notes. The book, which comes out this July, goes into a comparison of two borderland cultures: Tejanos at the southern Mexican-U.S. border and Mohawk Indians, whose nation of Akwesasne is separated by the U.S. and Canadian borderline. She described these as “parallel communities” citing similarities in their faith, being surrounded by environmentally toxic areas, and being sites of trafficking of drugs, arms and people. That said, the challenges that each community faces in regards to their respective border are notably
different. The border that splits the Akwesasne nation is marked not by a wall, but rather a bridge. The U.S.-Canadian borderline splits the nation one way and then the Ontario and Quebec borderline splits it another way. There are two bridges that Mohawks must cross to reach the portion of their nation located in Ontario, and it can take upward of two hours to do so, despite being located only a mile away. Even though the word “bridge” has a connotation of connectivity, it can actually be just as repressive as a wall.
The title of the book, All the Agents and Saints, was actually created by a typo. Greist recounted the moment in which she recognized this typo as the perfect title to the book she had been working on for some time. “I had just interviewed an artist and was starting to transcribe my notes. I was supposed to write ‘all the angels and saints’ which you may recognize as a line from a Catholic prayer, but I accidently typed ‘agents and saints.’ I looked at the mistake and I had this bodily reaction to it.” She quickly sacked the placeholder title (“Border Woman”) and replaced it with All the Agents and Saints. Griest explained the significance of the phrase ‘all the agents and saints’. “Agents and saints represent the wide spectrum of the protectorates of the borderlands, from the militarization of the border patrol to the very deeply entrenched faith of the saints. These are the odds at play in the book. I was really thrilled with it.”
Griest teaches creative nonfiction writing at UNC-CH.